How low can politics go?
That’s what I’ve been wondering as I learn about Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling entrepreneur and likely Republican nominee for the US Senate from Connecticut. Together with her husband, Vince, she has developed World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) into a $1.2 billion company. She reportedly plans to spend up to $50 million of this treasure to capture a Senate seat.
But pro wrestling is not just any business. To put it simply, McMahon’s fortune is built on violence and vulgarity. Anyone who cares about the future of our country should join hands to make sure she never joins the Senate.
If you think otherwise, look at clips from WWE's recent past. You’ll see enormous human beings pummel one another with sledgehammers, garbage cans, and folding chairs. They deliver blows to the face, neck, and groin, often drawing blood.
They denounce rivals with signature gestures and curses, made famous by WWE’s relentless marketing machine. One former WWE star, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, was best known for his raised middle finger. Other wrestlers preferred sexually vulgar utterances.
Indeed, there has been almost as much sexual imagery outside the ring as there is violence inside it. Over the past decade, the WWE has invented R-rated plotlines for its wrestling characters. Only a few can be cited in a family newspaper, but one involves a wrestler who played a pimp – complete with his own line of barely clothed women, whom he blithely called his “hos.”
Women compete in the ring, too, adding yet another element of sleaze. In the WWE’s now-defunct “Bra and Panties” event, they tried to strip one another down to their underwear; in the “Pudding Match,” they wrestled in a pit of chocolate; and in the “Paddle and Pole” competition, the winner was the first woman to climb a pole, obtain a paddle, and strike her opponent.
Here you might reply that none of this is real – and that WWE has now cut out especially raunchy and violent segments like these to earn a “PG” television rating. The wrestlers don’t engage in actual sexual acts. And they don’t really engage in violence, either, faking both their aggression and their pain.
[Editor’s note: The original article failed to note that WWE has altered its programming and now merits a “PG” rating. As a result, several sentences have been revised to make clear which events no longer occur.]
Tell that to the WWE veterans who have suffered chronic injuries, including hearing and memory loss. Most of all, tell it to the millions of children who think all of this behavior is real.
Over 20 percent of WWE’s audience is under 18. Its most popular show, “Raw,” draws an estimated 420,000 boys between ages 12 and 17. And it’s increasingly popular among 6-11 year-olds, who are targeted by special product tie-ins. For example, the WWE recently signed a deal with toy manufacturer Mattel to market action-figures of its stars.
Should we be surprised that some of these children – especially the youngest ones – believe the action is real? Or that some of them start to imitate it themselves?
Across the country, elementary school teachers have reported that their students mimic the chokeholds and karate chops they see on wrestling shows. And in several notorious cases, kids have been killed by other children who were using stylized moves from pro wrestling.
Did wrestling “cause” these deaths, on its own? Of course not. But surely these shows must have some influence on behavior. After all, that’s why advertisers pay the WWE: They think TV can change what people do. And they’re right.
For her own part, meanwhile, Linda McMahon has zealously defended her WWE activities. In a recent Senate campaign ad, she noted that the WWE “entertains millions every week.” And like any successful business, she has argued, it also generates jobs.
But the same goes for pornography, which is even more popular – and more lucrative – than pro wrestling. If McMahon peddled porn instead of wrestling, would Connecticut voters consider sending her to Congress?
I think not. No matter what porn does to individual viewers – and the jury is still out on that – it surely contributes to an overall coarsening and vulgarization of our culture. Americans would be appalled, and rightly so, if a prominent pornographer was elected to our nation’s highest legislative body.
So we should be equally embarrassed at the prospect of a pro wrestling queen in the Senate. Like pornography, wrestling mixes sex and violence to degrade our humanity. By electing one of its prime movers, we would be debasing ourselves.
True, Minnesota did elect former wrestling star Jesse Ventura as its governor in 1998. But his single term was marred by Ventura's ill-considered gaffes and hot temper, which echoed his villainous persona from the ring. Voters quickly tired of his act, and they haven't forgotten it. When Ventura reportedly probed a Senate run in 2008, polls put him well behind Norm Coleman (whom he defeated for governor in 1998) and Al Franken, the eventual winner.
Professional wrestling is a legal enterprise. Ventura has a right to engage in it, McMahon has a right to produce it, and viewers have a right to watch. But McMahon has no right – none – to a seat in the US Senate.
Our elected officials should elevate our politics, calling us to our better instincts. By contrast, McMahon's business represents Americans at their worst.
Let's hope she doesn't get to represent us in Washington, too.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”